Saturday, January 16, 2016

Fiction #65: Leila Marshy

The Plow

Marc woke up with one arm under her, the other over, a leg across her shins. Like a bear stirring in its cave, the tiny hairs on her skin intermingled with his own, generated heat. He dressed in the dark, missed the toilet bowl slightly for which she always forgave him, brushed his teeth. He used to skip the teeth part but she took to leaving his toothbrush on the edge of the sink. He had to use it or risk knocking it to the floor. There was no five second rule with toothbrushes. In the kitchen, the layers of sweaters, jackets and pants stiffened his limbs, slowed him down, then heated him up again. He ate fast, moved fast, left quickly. The cold didn’t hit him until he turned the key. The old Honda was a freezer on wheels and it took the entire trip to the garage, almost 25 kilometres, for the engine to heat up. By the time he climbed into the cabin of the snowplow his back and kidneys were aching. It was minus 32 Celsius and don’t talk to him about wind chill.

He drove quickly with the blade up. The seat bounced hard with every rut, always in tune with the music, buds nestled comfortably inside the large headset that kept his ears warm and sealed in the music. The night was black and yellow, empty streets save for a taxi or two. A gang of teenage boys walked in the middle of the road as if on parade. He knew the uniform: bomber jackets, baseball caps, running shoes. They moved stiffly, hands deep in their frozen denim pockets, shoulders wrapped around necks like scarves. Their collective shivering transformed them into figures of energy and menace that cast moon shadows in ways only boys can. He turned onto a smaller street. He didn’t know this neighbourhood but knew that after a couple of snowstorms it would be as familiar as his own. Small and narrow streets of single family homes built after the second world war. That’s what Serge had told him and Serge only knew because his wife had grown up there. He was expecting something a little more upscale – Serge obviously easily impressed – but as he lowered the blade he was relieved to see old cars, drafty windows, unrepaired fences, rotting balconies. He’d tell Marie-Claire. Neither of them had family in Montreal so they could set their sights anywhere. Just a simple place to raise a kid maybe two hopefully three, anywhere to settle back into her skin their shared fur skin her legs vined around his their arms rooting together in the cave of their shared breathing. Nights were long.

The blade bounced up too fast and crashed hard. The entire cabin rattled, a steel against steel quaking he didn’t like one bit. Something flew by on his right into the snow behind him. An animal maybe, a raccoon he suspected. Serge said there were lots of raccoons out here because of the fields and empty lots. But the colour was off, it seemed brighter in the streetlamp, maybe even red. Like a coat? A red coat. He screeched to a halt and looked around. Snow was careening hard off the bank and had already covered the newly cleared road with a thin drift. It sworled in through the top of the jammed window and wrapped around his torso. He pulled his arms close and wondered about getting out for a quick tour around the machine. But with the wheel up against the bank on he'd have to climb over it, slip step by step, balance on the frame of the bulldozer as the engine squalled. He’d never admit it, but he hated being close to a roaring engine. In any case, he’d done plenty of walkarounds before and for what. For nothing. After a minute he nudged the truck forward. He picked up speed at the corner and finished the route in no time. She was eating breakfast when he got home. There was an egg for him and some toast, pot of coffee. She kissed him softly on her way out and reminded him to pay the phone bill. He took his plate to the living room and looked out the front window. He wondered about his chances of getting a route closer to home. He wondered who would wear a red coat. Only a woman would wear a red coat. He scraped the rest of his breakfast into the garbage.

70,000 tons of salt, 800 trucks, thousands of hours in overtime, Montreal’s budget blown and winter had barely begun. How long would it last this year. Could be a melt in February with only a few stubborn heaves in March. Or could be a pile up until April, so much snow that the rivers would rise up and break into building-sized sea blocks, crackling day and night as the muddy glaciers broke off and moved upshore. He’d seen it out by Valleyfield, out by Rigaud, out by Chambly, as if the modest rivers had been violated by an icebreaker. He’d made piles of money then. That’s how they had the down payment for a house and that’s how she’d finally said yes. He was doing everything right. See? Proof, he said to his old friends, anyone can change, even me. They laughed and took bets. He napped in the afternoon so he could be up when she came home. She made them an early dinner, heavy greasy meaty dinner just for him. He dozed in front of the television while she cleaned up. Later, her hands roamed his body like a light breeze and he fought his fatigue, wanting to respond, wanting to be like bending grasses against her gentle plowing. But he fell into an even deeper sleep and she loved him for it. He woke up a few hours later to her soft snores. He buried his desire like a treasure, untangled his limbs, got out of bed.

The guys were hovering over the coffee pot. Serge was reading the Journal aloud, punctuating the text with commentary. Five foot three, thirty eight years old – bén she looks like fifty in this photo! – two kids, works at the Bar Chantalle in Lasalle. He wondered what this was all about. She’s missing, said Serge. He turned the paper around so everyone could see her picture. So? he asked. So, she was coming home from the bar and no one saw her again. She’s missing.

He didn’t like the way everyone was quiet, the way they looked at him. You didn’t see anything, Serge asked. You didn’t hear anything? Did you know she lives on your route? Did you notice people leaving Bar Chantalle when you drove by? What the hell. No, I didn’t see anything! He poured the rest of his coffee down the sink and stomped towards his truck. She was wearing a red coat, Serge called out. Did you see anyone with a red coat? Serge was an asshole, always an asshole. But he was also a tease and Marc was too far to hear everyone laughing. They loved to rile each other up, to jab at that place that was softest, most vulnerable, most afraid. They'd hunt it down, yank it into the light and watch it shrink in horror. They were the men who drove monsters through the darkened streets while the rest of the world dreamed, trusting their thick hands to turn the right way, change the gear at the right time, lift the blade just so. But they were afraid of what they could do. Behemoth machines who forgave no one, who always made them pay for their sins. He started the truck then stopped it again, got back out and ran to the bathroom to empty his insides. Later, the seat bounced even harder, landing with bone shattering smashes each and every time, as if the voided weight was making all the difference between comfort and torment.

He said nothing to her over breakfast. She wanted to see the Journal, which he usually brought from the work room, but he told her he had forgotten it. She wasn’t happy about missing the paper because apparently a 9 year old girl was all set to win La Voix – plus the fact that the girl's parents were in the middle of a messy divorce due to the father's sex change. He didn’t see the connection but she laughed. Of course there’s a connection. Look it up on your phone, he said, you’re always on your phone. She waved away the suggestion, I want a new phone, mine is too small it hurts my eyes. He shook his head. Who knew how long winter is going to last this year, let’s wait. Who knew how long winter is going to last. Who knew how long winter is going to last. She stared at him.

The snow pounded and pounded and pounded. Heavy flakes came straight at him like parachuted soldiers, the wipers charging angrily up and down. He rumbled along the autoroute, an impatient trail of white lights behind him. He laughed at the idiots who maneuvered to get in front then fishtailed on the unsalted lane ahead. Hosti des caves, he said out loud. He was comfortable now. The cab was warm and he just had to drive. He marveled at the snowflakes. Each one tiny and insignificant but together they converged into a massive and brutal army.

The woman was still in the paper. In spite of the absence of news or clues, the Journal had updates daily. They had narrowed down and itemized her last moments. She had worked late at the bar, closed it up, parted with a colleague. He had offered a drive home but she was okay, she only lived three blocks away. The last he saw her was in his rear view mirror, standing in the bar parking lot as if waiting to take the first step. She had been wearing a long, red parka with a fake fur lined hood, might have been listening to music. There were two teenagers at home, the father lived in Verdun and worked as a mechanic. He was married again, had two more kids, younger ones, babies. Any possibility of his involvement was dismissed. It was his week with the kids and he had been home. They left the Journal on the table when they went for their shift, forgot all about it. Marc picked up every single copy and threw them in the garbage.

He crouched down and looked under his truck, ran his hands along the wheel well, felt under the chassis as far as he could go, looked for fabric, thread, bits of cloth. Ran his fingers over and along every inch. Wondered if had been born blind would his fingertips be more sensitive, feel what was not there, feel her breath, feel her cry as she flew against her will into a wall of steel and smoke.

What are you doing? Joe stood behind him. Joe would sell you to the devil or the dépanneur if it suited him. Joe had both hands in his pockets and was asking him questions. Did you get into an accident or something, did you forget to fill out an accident report, is there something I should know? Nothing, Marc said, straightening up. He knew how to deal with assholes. He knew it in his bones, was raised on it merci tout le monde. When you never have family you never have enemies, some one had once told him. Joe eventually just shook his head and walked away. His insides shook and for the second time that week he emptied his breakfast lunch and supper into the garage toilet.

It was too hot in the bed but she kept putting her arms and legs on him. He moved them off but she shuffled and put them back. He looked at his phone: he didn’t have to get up for another hour. She moved her face to his shoulder, both legs on his. He swore and got up. What did she want from him anyways, he wondered for the first time. Someone safe? reliable? a good man? How did she know he was a good man? He yanked up his pants and regretted where his mind was taking him. She’d had a tough ride. She said he was the first man to love her and not want to rip her apart in the process. He couldn’t begrudge her that. You have a good heart, she whispered once. He’d been so surprised to hear it, like it was another language. You make me want to be good, he answered after a long minute of hiding his eyes. Now he felt a melting and for a strange and discomfiting second thought he was going to cry. He swore out loud, louder, louder. He left the house and, forgetting everything, banged the door behind him.

He took a detour, stopped the truck. Walked over to the snowbank and kicked it. Realized that people might see him, that in spite of it being 2:10 in the morning, there might be someone wondering why the snowplow driver was kicking the snowbank right where the woman from Bar Chantalle went missing. So he dropped his glove then made as if to find it and pick it up. He waved it around theatrically, put it back on his hand. Felt like an idiot. He hated whoever could be in their window, hated them he could almost taste it, a bloody taste that shocked him with its familiarity. Chrisse, he didn’t want to go there. That was then and this is now goddammit. Got a good job found a good woman deserved a good life. He kicked the snowbank and exhaled loudly, almost a growl. No one heard.

He tried to remember. The blade bouncing off the packed snow with a jarring bang, something flying off to the side then was gone. Fluttering like fabric, not like a raccoon, heavy fabric, a coat, a red coat. He had twisted around to look but whatever it was was gone. The remembering competed with the music so he turned it off. It was hot in the cab now, he pulled off his ear protectors then his scarf. With his ears exposed the noise shocked him with its heft, the sound of working gears and pistons and pneumatic thrusting. So much metal, so much weight. His bones and insides shook as the chair bounced up and down. That was the fun part when he had first started. Now this was a job! This was something he could do, rumble down the roads in the black of night and push that wall of snow with all his weight. It made him feel strong and purposeful for the first time in his life. Like a coat whose job it is to keep a woman warm, thick fabric, not a raccoon, most certainly red.

He refused breakfast, third morning in a row. But you have to eat, she insisted, and pushed the plate towards him. A red scarf was wrapped around her neck as she readied for work. She reminded him, didn’t he know that breakfast was the most important meal of the day? Tabarnac! Are you stupid? This is my supper. I have to go to sleep while the rest of the world has a life to live. He pushed the plate away so roughly it landed on the floor. She opened her eyes wide. A dormant part of him took pleasure as an inchoate beast sparked to frightening life. She shut the door silently behind her.

Someone had put up pictures of her face. Her name was Angèle. What the fuck kind of name was that, he wondered. Every lamp post and mailbox had a picture of her and if he drove by quickly enough it played out like a movie. Angèle, Angèle, Angèle. He pushed down on the accelerator and ran over a mailbox. Two streets away he got out and inspected the truck for dents or bits of paint. Nothing so fuck you, Joe.

Someone taped up the most recent Journal article in the kitchen. The guys worried about her now. Someone had a brother who knew her sister. They could afford to be solemn he thought, easy for them. They’re all losers. He tore it down. Hey, what are you doing, Serge asked. What do you care about her for, he demanded. Eh? Who cares about some Bar Chantalle bitch. And Angèle, what the fuck kind of name is that? They looked at him, saw something they had seen in each other, in the mirror even, but never in him. They thought he was one of the good guys and it made them proud, made them feel proud of themselves. We’re all just good guys, they could say, just simple guys who want a simple life. Now his face was screwed up and his voice was loud and the veins in his neck throbbed with visible anger. They backed away. They got in their cabs and covered their ears.

He found out where she lived and drove by her house. He stopped the truck. So what? City trucks do nothing all the time. That made him smile. He’s just another lazy city worker, they’ll think, and who the fuck cares. He sipped his coffee. She was 38 and had been wearing a red coat. Eight years older than him, he only had black coats no kids one cat, not black not red but orange. She never made it home but was lying in the snowbank a block away. Suddenly he panicked. Winter was not going to last forever. One day the snow will melt and she will be discovered. Frozen and mangled in such a way that the only conclusion will be that a snowplow was the culprit. He knew how things like that went down. A minute scrap of yellow paint on her boot, on her hand, maybe nudged between two teeth, and they’d find him. He’d be charged with negligence, hit and run, manslaughter, murder. His entire life would be ruined, he’ll be back in hell with no way out and no one to love him. Marie-Claire will look at him with disgust. He jammed down on the accelerator, careened the beast around the corner and down the road, onto another road, another corner, missed a parked cars by inches, and stopped with a thud at the snowbank. Here.

He backed up, faced into it, rammed his blade. Backed up, angled a little to the left, rammed his blade. Backed up, angled more, rammed. Backed up, angled, rammed. He kept at it until he carved out an area the length of half a dozen cars, pushed the snow so resolutely that grass could be seen underneath. First grass in months. The next morning kids on their way to school would jump up and down on it, touch its frozen lace. So resolutely was the snow pushed back that it covered a walkway and hid a front door. He wondered who lived there. Depending on their attitude, they could make a stink. Later that morning he went straight to the bedroom. She was doing something with her clothes or jewelry he couldn’t tell what. Happy to see him she went for a kiss, hot arms around his neck. He pushed her away and crawled under the blankets. Well at least take off your clothes, she said, I just changed the sheets. Fuck the sheets, he mumbled, and fell asleep. He dreamt he told her everything but then she put on a red coat, grew another head, and devoured him.

Joe waved him to a stop, motioned him down from the cab. What the hell you doing plowing a wall in front of a house? It was such a strange thing to do that right now Joe was more curious than angry. Listen, if there’s anything going on, if there’s anything I should know. How’s Marie-Claire? How’re things? No way, Marc thought to himself. No way you get to ask me about her. Everything's fine, he said out loud. She’s fine and I’m fine. Have you seen the fucking snow outside? If people can’t deal with it they can go to Florida. I plowed the snow so they can drive their fucking cars to their fucking jobs. Now they want it manicured? Joe raised his eyebrows, raised his hands, walked away. He knew to back off when guys got like that. Another hothead, he thought to himself. I thought he’d be one of the good ones but he’s just another fucking hothead.

He returned to the snowbank at the end of his shift. The street was alive with people, dogs, cars, school buses, noise. His head was light and empty, ready for sleep. How strange, he thought. Darkness can give you the impression that the world is yours, but daylight reveals that it belongs to someone else. He stopped a block away and walked to the wall of snow that was pushed up against the house. He chuckled, had to admit that it was a bit extreme. The door flew open. An old man yelled in Italian-accented French. In spite of the raised voice and shaking fist, he was relieved. Just an old guy in stained pants. He nodded sympathetically and pretended to be taking his complaint. The old man finally went back inside. He felt a wave of dizziness. He kicked around in the snow. He thought he saw something red but it turned out to be the plastic end of a sled. He could hardly breath.

Marie-Claire was waiting for him. Are you seeing someone else, she finally asked. That woke him up. Are you fucking kidding me? He tried not to swear in front of her. Are you kidding me? When? Where? I come home every day, I sleep with you. She had to acknowledge that, but logistics did not fill the gap in her instinct. There was something going on. She refused to cry, no way was he going to see her cry. Fine, she said, but a hardness in her voice had taken hold. If it wasn’t a woman then what was it? Then the thought of another woman didn’t worry her as much as the attrition of his attention. If he was turning away with no outside reason, then there was nothing she could do. A tide of despair rose up and everything inside her began to drown. Not again. She left him with breakfast and lunch and the car insurance renewal papers. He ate neither and tore up the bill.

He went back to the snowbank and idled in his truck. The old Italian opened the door and yelled. Didn’t he have anything better to do? Go back in the house old man. He did it differently this time, kept the blade high and scraped backwards. He dug through the snow like an archeologist at Giza. It had meant absolutely nothing to him when they learned about the pyramids at school. Some place, some history, some lost land of sand. But here he was at an icy monolith, feeling like one of the slaves pushing and rolling the snow back and forth. No, he was a Pharaoh, a great leader, showing the people how it’s done. The vague memory made him wonder exactly what the pyramids were used for. Something about burying the Pharaohs? The cold was getting to him so he dialed up the heat in the cab.

What the flying fuck, Joe yelled as he got out of the truck. Joe only talked to him in English. He rarely answered and Joe probably thinks it’s because he can’t speak the language. Is that it? Does Joe think he’s a dumb ass? Thinks he can’t speak English? What the hell do you think you’re doing? What is going on? Joe wouldn’t let up, he couldn’t even get a word in French let alone English. I got two complaints tonight, two! One from the same guy and one from a neighbour. What the fuck? I got the city breathing down my neck, the mayor breathing down my neck, the fucking union breathing down my neck. And you're acting like a weirdo. I’m asking you nicely now Marc, what the fuck is going on. You losing it? Drinking? He looked at Joe and unzipped his jacket. Unfurled his scarf. Kicked the snow off his boots. He said nothing. But Joe’s eyes got harder. Worse, they got questioning. Like he was the asshole. Fine, Joe said. This one’s going in your file. One more complaint and you’re out. On your fucking ass.

Marie-Claire stood over his sleeping body. Fuck you, she said softly, and left for work. He opened his eyes and shot up, layered himself, two for his feet, two for his legs, three for is torso, then the coat. Not red, but black. Coffee was waiting for him: one, two, a third. He returned to the snowbank. It was daylight, he was in his own car, everything would be different. He retrieved his shovel out of the trunk and got to work. Five minutes later the Italian came out in his boots and coat. Not red. Didn't yell. Mark glanced up but otherwise paid no attention. Then the Italian started blathering like he was talking to someone. A crazy, Marc thought. I just call police, the old guy said. Marc stood up and groaned. His back was sore, his hands were cold, snot was running down his face. The snow was soft, like a pillow. He remembered crawling in a snow cave once and hiding for the entire day. His hot breath had made a soft film of ice around the inside walls, strengthening them, keeping in the heat. He should have stayed there his entire childhood. The Italian lurched forward and grabbed Marc’s shovel. You go, he said, you get out of here! They tussled back and forth until the old guy fell forward on his face. What do you expect, Mark yelled at him, frustrated that he had been forced to wrestle an old man down. He nudged at him with his boot. Come on, get up tabarnac. But his body was as inert and heavy as the snowbank. Fuuuuck, he yelled to himself. He thrust the shovel again and again into the snow. Fuuuuck. The police car screeched to a halt. Snow was on his face, down his neck, up his stomach, breaching the layers, cold rivulets on his skin. They pushed him into the back seat. An ambulance arrived a minute later and loaded the Italian onto a stretcher.

Marc had no answers for them at the station. Why was he digging into the snowbank? Why had he made the snowbank in the first place? So, Marc thought, they’re thorough. He resisted calling Marie-Claire. No sense calling a lawyer, he didn’t know the first thing about finding a lawyer. Anyways, they hadn't charged him with anything. What, arrest him for plowing too hard? He wasn’t even thinking of Angèle. He looked around the station. The officers were like teenagers, their heads boring into cellphones. He got up and looked at the printouts of various missing people. Then he saw the poster for Angèle. He glanced around and met someone’s eyes, a police officer he hadn’t noticed before. So what happened to her, he asked as casually as possible. Did you ever find who killed her? The cop got up and tore it down.

Have you solved the case then? Marc was incredulous. Nah, they found her. Found the body? The cop looked at him now, something strange about this guy. No, he told Marc, they found her, she had just ran off with some guy for a few days. What? Yeah, she turned up with some guy she met on the Internet, why? Nothing, Marc said, we all followed her story in the Journal. Yeah, this shit happens all the time, the cop said. She went to Arizona or something like that, go figure. Marc had to sit down to catch his breath. Another cop came in from outside and they whispered. The first turned to him. Mr Del Fiacco is dead, he said. Who? The guy you beat up, he’s dead. They cuffed him.

When Marc didn’t call or come home, she didn’t panic. She knew then and there that the trust was broken, all bridges down. She packed up her things, took that overtime due her, and went to Trois Rivières. She’d set up at her mother's apartment for a bit, figure things out, get back on her feet. She cried for three days, maybe four. Her mother never liked him, didn't she say? Never liked the look of him. Darkness doesn't go away just because you turn on a light, she'd said. They were eating dinner in front of the television when they saw him on the screen, a mug shot, followed by a picture of Vincenzo Del Fiacco, age 81. The union was blaming it on the stress of overtime. Her mother recoiled. Did she have anything to do with this? Is she in hiding? Marie-Claire did not have the energy to deal with her mother’s confirmed suspicions. She packed her bag.

Marie-Claire paid his bail took him home ran a bath put on the kettle didn’t ask a single question, answers would come eventually, winter always leads to spring, rivers thaw, darkness disappears with the flick of a match. He lay quietly in the candle-lit bathroom. The smell of onions and butter coming from the kitchen filled him with a hunger he hadn't felt in weeks. He let his arms float in the water, every now and then turned on the hot to keep the temperature up. He hadn’t taken a bath since he was a boy. In spite of everything he had always been a kind boy, a sweet boy. People would say that in court and it was true.
.

*


Leila Marshy spent the last two years as an overnight baker and got to know a snowplow driver or two - in the weathering sense. This story was concocted in a blizzard and written while the bread did its second rising. She’s been published in journals and anthologies in Canada and the US. She is completing her first novel. She is at haikuboxer.com

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